There are museums in San Diego for every interest, whether you have a passion for history, art, or nature. Most of them (both world-famous and those with a niche following) are family-friendly, but some really go above and beyond when it comes to exhibits and programming for children.
In this post, I’ll share some of my favorite children’s museums in San Diego County that blend education with fun. The options include some traditional museums, as well as some hands-on discovery spaces specifically for younger learners.
Please check each museum’s calendar for opening hours and information before you go in today’s changing world. Right now, all museums on this list are temporarily closed but they do have some pretty amazing virtual programming for kids, classrooms, scout programs, and even adults.
For when the time comes, hopefully, my suggestions will make your next family vacation to San Diego an amazing experience for the teens, tweens, kids, and toddlers in your crew.
You can save on tickets, tours, and hotels through my affiliations. If you make purchases through the links in this post, I may be compensated.
10 Best Museums for Children in San Diego
Not every San Diego museum on this list is solely a children’s museum, but all of them are kid-friendly. You will visit to enjoy the exhibits, but I encourage you to use these insitutions as educational resources year-round whether you’re a resident or a tourist.
They also offer summer camps, science courses, offsite excursions, and many more opportunities to expose kids (and you) to history, culture, arts, and the environment.
Join their email newsletter lists to stay up-to-date. If you have questions about any of these places, feel free to leave me a comment, and I’ll reply.
1. Fleet Science Center
Location: Balboa Park
Address: 1875 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101
Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park is a hands-on science museum, where the whole family can get in on the fun. They are highly focused on keeping kids interested in STEM subjects through exhibits but also (usually) robust youth, school, and teacher programs.
There are more than 100 interactive exhibits (plus movies in the IMAX dome theater) and a rotating selection of world-class temporary exhibits about everything from why the grossest stuff in the world exists to explosions.
Of course, adults can participate, and little kids are not left out. Kid City and its Little Learner’s Lab are permanent exhibits just for children five and under, and there’s even a play area where babies can learn more about the world through touch and play.
I also love picking up unique gifts for kids’ birthdays, ranging from science kits to astronaut ice cream, in the onsite shop.
At-home resources: FleetTV is full of fun videos about science experiments to try at home (and even some jokes). You can submit your questions, too, and maybe a scientist will answer them in an episode.
2. The New Children’s Museum
Location: Downtown San Diego
Address: 200 W Island Ave, San Diego, CA 92101
If you’re starting to see a pattern of great kid-friendly museums giving children lots of opportunities to learn through creative play, you’re right.
The New Children’s Museum is another one of the best museums in San Diego for kids because it makes learning and sharpening critical thinking skills so much fun. This museum is known for its ever-changing exhibits.
There’s a room filled with mattresses where kids (and grownups) can jump and crawl as much as they want, the Sketch Aquarium where fish you draw on paper come alive in a huge digital aquarium, and even the art on display can be touched and played with.
Tip: This San Diego museum is located near many of the downtown San Diego hotels. If you stay in this popular part of town, it’s easy to include this children’s museum on a busy itinerary.
At-home resources: Virtual art experiences detail what the exhibits are about so that you can appreciate them even more when they reopen. They also offer online educator resources, online craft tutorials, and other downloads.
3. San Diego Natural History Museum
Location: Balboa Park
Address: 1788 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101
Known to locals as the NAT, this is one of the best museums in San Diego and a favorite of local and visiting kids.
What’s so great about this museum is that children of all ages will get something out of it. We’ve been visiting through my daughter’s entire life. I can tell you first-hand that you can enjoy and learn something new with each visit.
We love saying hello to “Al” (the allosaurus cast in the lobby), completing the scavenger hunts in Fossil Mysteries, watching the Foucault Pendulum swing, and learning about Southern California’s unique habitats.
I’ve actually had a chance to go behind the scenes at theNAT to see some of the over 8 million specimens in their collection and to find out more about how scientists design the museum’s exhibits. It’s fascinating yet important work they do for our community.
Tip: It’s tempting to visit the Balboa Park museums and San Diego Zoo on the same day because they’re next door to each other. Split the visits into two days, if you can, because it’s otherwise a long day for small kids (I speak from much experience).
At-home resources: theNAT has always offered a robust list of activities for families to be citizen scientists outside of the museum. Check theNAT @ Home for ways to find nature in your backyard, learn about our region, find lesson plans, and find activities at home.
4. USS Midway Museum
Location: Downtown San Diego
Address: 910 N Harbor Dr, San Diego, CA 92101
The longest-serving aircraft carrier of the 20th century is now a museum at the San Diego Embarcadero in downtown. You might assume that this wouldn’t be a kid-friendly attraction, but the people who designed the USS Midway experience have done a wonderful job creating a hands-on attraction for younger visitors.
Admission includes a self-guided audio tour (including an audio tour with content geared specifically for 7-12-year-old visitors), but there are guides on board — some of whom actually served on the USS Midway — that are happy to answer kids’ questions about life on board the ship.
TICKETS WITH NO RESERVATIONSEven today, you can go straight to the gate with these discounted tickets for the USS Midway Museum.
At-home resources: You can watch virtual tours of the aircraft carrier and its flight deck. But, did you know that they offer a Little Skippers section online with activity downloads? You can even listen to the family audio tour online.
5. Maritime Museum of San Diego
Location: Downtown San Diego
Address:1492 N Harbor Dr, San Diego, CA 92101
You’ll find one of the largest collections of historic sea vessels at this museum, which is worth adding to your itinerary if you’re looking for things to do in San Diego with teens.
The collection includes fascinating exhibits showcasing maritime history, the fishing industry, and war on the seas, along with real frigates, swift boats, steam-powered vessels, and submarines.
There are even opportunities to ride aboard some of the museum’s ships through special tours (book in advance) — a one of a kind experience. And it’s really neat to walk through the B-39 Soviet submarine (albeit a tight fit).
Tip: See the Maritime Museum of San Diego and the USS Midway Museum on the same day as they’re only a short walk from each other.
At-home resources: Free videos and virtual lesson plans catered to grades 3-5 are available that focus on Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and the discovery of California.
6. San Diego Air & Space Museum
Location: Balboa Park
Address: 2001 Pan American Plaza, San Diego, CA 92101
This museum in Balboa Park isn’t one of the children’s museums of San Diego, but it is absolutely child-friendly.
In addition to the original and full-size replica aircraft and spacecraft in the San Diego Air & Space Museum — like the actual Apollo 9 Command Module — there are also flight simulators and a lot of hands-on interactive displays designed with younger visitors in mind.
You could easily spend hours here — especially if you decide to catch a movie in the 3D/4D Zable Theater.
At-home resources: Check out Air & Space at Your Place. The four week themed programs cover topics like rockets, time machines, and astronauts. They are geared toward grades 2-5. The Zoom sessions meet for one hour per week.
7. San Diego Model Railroad Museum
Location: Balboa Park
Address: 1649 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101
Another gem in Balboa Park, the San Diego Model Railroad Museum is a must-see for families with kids who are obsessed with trains.
There are over 27,000 square feet of amazingly detailed model train layouts — complete with full towns and farms, tiny carnivals, and more — making this the biggest scale Model Railroad Museum in the whole United States.
At-home resources: There’s no better place to learn about how to build a model railroad. They’ve designed a virtual program for families who are up for the task, in addition to online crafts and videos.
8. San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum
Address: 320 N Broadway, Escondido, CA 92025
This is one of the best museums in San Diego for families with young children for two reasons. First, it’s inexpensive so you can go a lot. And second, it’s hands-on in a way many museums are not.
Learning here is definitely rooted in play, and kids are encouraged to touch, imagine, explore, and experiment to learn more about the natural world, science, math, engineering, art, and history.
Children from the toddler years through grade school just love it.
At-home resources: This kids’ museum strives to provide families with something do to every day, whether it’s story time via Facebook live, how-to videos, or daily STREAM (Science, Technology, Reading, Engineering, Art, and Math) activities posted on their blog.
9. Birch Aquarium at Scripps
Location: La Jolla
Address: 2300 Expedition Way, La Jolla, CA 92037
Birch Aquarium at Scripps showcases the research of the world-renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego through over 60 aquarium habitats, hands-on exhibits, an outdoor playground, and even a touch tide pool.
Go for a raised awareness of how our actions impact the environment, marvel at the over 3000 sea animals in residence, and learn about some of the equipment scientists use at sea.
It’s a must for any budding oceanographer. Don’t forget your camera as views from Tide Pool Plaza over La Jolla Shores Beach are breathtaking.
At-home resources: Birch Aquarium’s opportunities for virtual learning are far too long to list but check out its after school programs, virtual camps, educational crafts, or even watch the fish swim around thanks to the Kelp Cam.
10. Living Coast Discovery Center
Location: Chula Vista
Address: 1000 Gunpowder Point Dr, Chula Vista, CA 91910
The Living Coast Discovery Center is a museum that I feel is often overlooked. It’s located in the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge about 15 minutes south of Downtown.
They’re a zoo, aquarium, and museum all wrapped into one that teaches kids about the local flora and fauna in our coastal environment and why it’s important to care for it.
You can get up-close with raptors and rays in the exhibits and by booking animal encounters. I also recommend walking the trails around the museum for pretty bay views and to spot plenty of local birds.
At-home resources: Virtual programming includes online animal encounters for birthdays, classrooms, and every day fun. You can also download coloring sheets, get craft ideas, watch wildlife webinars and more.
Save Money on Admission to Children’s Museums in San Diego
Sightseeing passes and special events make visiting children’s museums in San Diego easier and more affordable.
It’s far more economical to join your favorite children’s museum as a member. This grants you unlimited access to the museum year-round.
We hold the Balboa Park Explorer Pass which includes multiple museums in Balboa Park. It pays for itself after just a few visits to this popular attraction.
Go San Diego® Pass
I love the Go San Diego pass. It’s a very popular sightseeing pass that will give you easier access to 55+ attractions in and around the city, will let you skip the lines entirely in many cases, and will help you save money on San Diego attractions, too.
PLEASE NOTE: Go San Diego passes are not qualifying tickets for the annual Kids Free San Diego promotion in October.
EXCLUSIVE LA JOLLA MOM DISCOUNT
Use promo code LJM10SDO to apply an extra 10% off ALL Go San Diego sightseeing passes!
This discount stacks on top of sale rates! Expires 12/31/22.
A lot of people buy the pass because it’s a simple way to get discounted admission to multiple theme parks like SeaWorld® San Diego and Knott’s Berry Farm plus hotspots like Belmont Park. You can also use it to visit the following San Diego museums:
- San Diego Air and Space Museum
- San Diego Art Institute
- San Diego Automotive Museum
- San Diego History Center
- San Diego Museum of Art
- San Diego Museum of Man
- San Diego Natural History Museum
- The Fleet Science Center
- The New Children’s Museum™
- USS Midway Museum
- Whaley House
- Living Coast Discovery Center
- Mingei Museum
- Model Railroad Museum
- Museum of Contemporary Art (Downtown)
- Museum of Making Music
- Museum of Photographic Arts
- Coronado Museum of History and Art
There are various pass options available in 1, 2, 3, 5, and 7-day increments, but the Build Your Own pass is the best option for people who know exactly what they want to see and do in San Diego. Or there’s an Explorer pass that let’s you choose a set number of attractions to visit.
Kids Free San Diego
One of the best times for families to visit San Diego is during October, thanks to the annual Kids Free San Diego promotion.
Details are usually released during the prior summer but kids go free to over 100 museums, attractions, theme parks, and restaurants throughout the county.
Museum Month in February
You’ll need to pick up a pass at participating libraries or Hilton Hotels in San Diego that will grant you half-off admission to over 40 museums. The details are usually released in January.
What are your favorite children’s museums in San Diego?
See also: 60+ Free Things to Do in San Diego